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Warner Home Video presents
White Heat (1949)

"Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" 
- Cody Jarrett (James Cagney)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: March 09, 2005

Stars: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo
Other Stars: Edmond O'Brien, Fred Clark
Director: Raoul Walsh

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:53m:16s
Release Date: January 25, 2005
UPC: 012569672826
Genre: gangster


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ ACC B-

DVD Review

"Maybe I am nuts." That's Cody Jarrett's self-assessment, and in truth, he should get rid of the "maybe." White Heat prides itself on being a story with a psychopath at its center, and James Cagney is simply mesmerizing in the role—it's not just a great onscreen turn, but also serves as a sort of apotheosis for all the gangsters he'd played in his illustrious career. (This movie is to Cagney's career and gangster pictures what Unforgiven is to Clint Eastwood's career and Westerns.) And more than any other movie in the genre, it taps into the hypnotic, transgressive power of gangster movies—that is, we're so drawn to them because we get to see and establish a visceral connection to characters who get to do things that most of us never will. (Unless you're part of, say, the Gotti crew, and look at The Godfather as a training film.)

There's something almost existentialist about movie gangsters, and about Cody in particular: you are what you do, or, as Cody chides one of his gang, "Just do it. Stop the gabbing." (I smell a Nike ad in here somewhere.) Cagney here is almost two full decades removed from his earliest gangster roles, like Tom Powers in The Public Enemy—he's got a little bit of a belly now and he's obviously not doing his own stunts, though he's also a whole lot more ornery. He's so seething with rage that he occasionally has his spells—excruciating headaches without a diagnosis (migraines? seizures?), which he describes as "like having a red-hot buzzsaw inside my head," and they send him writhing to the ground, the only thing that can take down this crazed and driven man.

So is there anything redeeming about Cody, besides the actor who plays him? Well, he loves his mother. So much so, in fact, that there's lots of textbook unresolved Oedipal issues going on here—Cody and his Ma are almost in love (she says to her boy, "You're the smartest there is, Cody"), while he treats his gun moll of a wife, Verna, like dirt. The two women give terrific performances, too—Margaret Wycherly as Ma is almost as frightening as her boy, and Virginia Mayo (who, sadly, died recently, just a week before the release of this DVD) nails it—she's a tootsie who hucks out her gum before planting one on Cody's kisser, showing all kinds of class. Cody sure is a smart one—he and his boys pull off a big train heist, and though the Feds are on to them, Cody confesses to an out-of-state job—better to get a one-to-three pull in a state pen than the chair, and the cash will be waiting when Cody is done in the big house.

Alas, things don't go according to plan. Verna is stepping out on Cody with Big Ed, one of Cody's henchmen; even worse for Cody, his new bunkie and pal in the stir is an undercover Fed, looking to infiltrate the Jarrett gang. Aside from Cody being a psychopath, the movie is fascinated with the details of police procedure, and with the gadgets that come with—director Raoul Walsh lingers over details of technology, such as teletype machines and early car phones, and his film even gives a little clinic on the ABCs of law enforcement car chase technique.

The film's final sequence, in and around a Long Beach oil refinery, is a paragon of visceral, labyrinthine filmmaking—Cody's Ma always told him that he was at the center of the universe, and in her boy's final conflagration, there's every reason to believe her. It's a tribute to the quality of the film and especially to Cagney that, even though Cody really is vile—the kind of guy who shoots somebody in the back, then kicks the body to the victim's buddies at the bottom of the stairs, hollering, "Catch!"—, that we're almost rooting for him, in a Richard III kind of way. Joe Pesci in GoodFellas is in many ways the rightful heir to the Cody Jarrett throne, but even he was just a supporting player, not the star of the show. It's a movie and a character that's once appalling and jaw-droppingly wonderful, all the best things that a screen gangster and a gangster movie should be.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Though it's the most recently produced film in Warner Bros.' wonderful set of gangster movies, this one may look the worst, unfortunately. It's full of acid burn and scratches, and the discordance between location shots and those from the soundstage are extraordinarily jarring. Occasionally there's even an appalling shot so full of dirt and debris that it looks as if it were dropped in from an ancient print. It's sort of a shame that this one doesn't look better.

Image Transfer Grade: C

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Some of the dialogue gets a little muffled, and the dynamics can be a little hinky, too. Overall, just not a strong technical effort on this disc.

Audio Transfer Grade: C

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 33 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Drew Casper
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Warner Night at the Movies: 1949
Extras Review: USC film professor Drew Casper provides a commentary track crammed with excellent information—he's especially good on Cagney's history in the genre, and with Warner Bros. (This movie marked the actor's return to the studio, after an independent hiatus.) Also very interesting are his discussions of how things in Hollywood were changing, especially by the coming of television, and in providing an analysis of director Raoul Walsh's career and style as well. Casper is also among the talking heads in the accompanying documentary, Top of the World (16m:51s), which is largely an exercise in Cagney worship—e.g., critic Andrew Sarris calls the actor's work here "one of the great performances in the history of cinema." (Given my own gushing review above, though, I'm not about to cast any stones.) Eric Lax and Martin Scorsese are among those also interviewed; there's also some older interview footage with Virginia Mayo, and most tantalizingly but only fleetingly, a peek at a couple of outtakes from the production.

The original trailer lays it on thick about Cody: "The most terrifying figure the screen has ever known!" And Leonard Maltin is back for another installment of Warner Night at the Movies, an effort to re-create the 1949 moviegoing experience at home. Maltin provides an introduction (02m:56s) for the package (21m:20s), which consists of: a trailer for The Fountainhead; a newsreel recapping the events of the year, focusing in fact on the previous year's improbable election victory by Harry Truman; a short from the popular Joe McDoakes series, featuring an everyman doofus getting into trouble; and Bugs doing battle with the forces of gentrification in Homeless Hare.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

An appropriately crazed and wonderful climax to Cagney's career as a celluloid gangster, White Heat still churns with energy and lunacy. The print here isn't as sharp as could be, but a smart package of extras help to soften the blow of that. Top of the world!

 


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